Jay Walder’s Push For New Technology

THE COMMUTE: Like David Gunn, remembered for eliminating graffiti in the New York subways over 20 years ago, Jay Walder wants to be remembered for revolutionizing the MTA by bringing 21st century technology to the system – not the one who devastated it by instituting massive service cuts. He might get that chance, since Governor Cuomo’s does not intend to replace him. It will not be easy, though, with the governor’s decision to move $100 million from the Operating to Capital Budget this year.

Walder is moving forward on replacing the MetroCard with a swipeless card. Last week he also announced plans to study placing gates at subway stations to prevent passengers from falling onto the tracks. The Daily News was very skeptical.

This week the MTA also went live with Bustime, a pilot program now in use on the B63 on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, which alerts passengers of the time the next bus will arrive at your stop before you get on the bus by using your smartphone or by sending a text message to your mobile phone.

That may be the best of the three ideas by removing the frustration of not knowing when the next bus will arrive. However, it is only useful when alternatives are available. That’s why the B63 was a good choice for the pilot, because MTA passengers could choose to walk one block to the subway if the wait for a bus is too long.

The system however at this point cannot tell you the number of minutes you will have to wait, due to the unpredictability of traffic, but only the number of miles away the next bus is.  This system, as well as others the MTA is evaluating, are discussed in detail here.

The real benefit of such a system, however, would be if it could be used to get buses to operate at more regular intervals instead of in bunches. This has been the major complaint of bus riders for over 50 years. Until now the MTA has been answering these complaints by focusing on diversions by promising a GPS system that they spent at least $20 million on and never arrived, and Select Bus Service which will never affect more than a handful of bus routes.

Bustime was made possible by the MTA’s wise decision to use open source software and open up the process to web developers rather than trying to do all the work in-house or by contracting with an outside vendor. This represents a departure from the way the MTA has done business in the past.

The question still arises if new technology should be Walder’s major focus while other areas for improvement are being ignored, such as modernizing an outdated bus routing system to improve connectivity between neighborhoods. It should not take years for routes to be modernized or extended to new developments, and only after political pressure is levied.

Another area that has been ignored is studying the social dynamics within the organization to improve communication within and between departments and more attention paid to problem solving.  Too many departments are more interested in blaming each other than they are in working together toward reaching common goals. As a new manager, I once attended an MTA course where we were actually instructed to “get the monkey off your back” by shifting the problem to someone else, rather than trying to solve it.

Currently, if you report a problem to your boss and he ignores you, there is pretty much nothing else you can do. If you try to bypass him, then you become the target and are considered the troublemaker.

Upper management cannot be expected to know everything, and when communication does not get to them or they are lied to, which frequently happens because people want to protect themselves, things start to go awry. Since most matters almost always are of a technical nature, if the person being lied to does not have actual first hand experience in the subject, he believes what he is told and passes it on. The higher it goes, the less likely the truth will be discovered. Things escalate until something blows, and only then does the problem get the attention it deserves.

There are those who believe the MTA’s high ridership masks poor management practices and the MTA could be run with a far smaller operating and capital deficit and far lower public subsidies if more efficiencies were made. In an online discussion I was having with someone named “Sharon,” I was informed that in well-run companies, utilizing a modern computer information system, all important events are logged in to a central database to allow managers at all levels of command to monitor what is going on, and that this is not bleeding edge technology. Perhaps that is the type of technology that Jay Walder needs to be placing more focus on.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).